It’s that time of the year when you’re looking for a special present for that special person in your life. Flowers are certainly the obvious option, but I’m not talking about a straightforward bunch of red roses. This is where science comes in…
Plant geneticists have been trying for years to genetically modify some plants for the mere purpose of making them more aesthetically pleasant. However, the introduction of dramatic colours or stronger odours has proved to be slightly more difficult than anticipated. For example, many attempts have been made to obtain blue roses, by “switching off” synthesis of red pigment and introducing a blue pigment gene (to synthesise delphinidin), cloned from the pansy.
This was achieved by a two-fold operation: Frist, RNA interference blocked a crucial enzyme to produce red pigment, called dihydroflavonol 4-reductase (DFR), and second, an RNAi-resistant new variant was added allowing delphinidin to be synthesised. In theory this would produce a blue rose, but in reality the RNAi technique did not completely block synthesis of red pigment, and the result is a disappointing lavender or mauve rose. A further problem faced by baffled researchers was the fact that the blue pigment was easily degraded in rose petals, where the environment is more acidic than in the original pansies. Unfortunately, increasingly complicated genetic manipulations not only to add the blue pigment, but also to prevent its degradation, mean the production of deep blue roses is still a few years away.
Despite the problems, there have been some extraordinary creations over the years. Maybe the flower for your valentine is a “glow in the dark” orchid! Wouldn’t that be cool? In 1999, a research group from Singapore managed to introduce a luciferase gene from fireflies into orchids to generate a glow in the dark specimen. Orchid tissues were “bombarded” with active firefly DNA. Scientists then literally switched the lights of to see the results of their work. Bioluminescent tissues were propagated and used to produce transgenic plants. The green light is emitted by the whole orchid, including leaves and petals, as well as roots and stem. The glow may not be very bright (ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 photos per second), but the plant is able to maintain it for hours. This orchid hasn’t reached the point of being marketed as yet, but maybe in the near future you can present your loved one with a bioluminescent “I love you”.
Unfortunately, these options are not available at your local florist! I may not have been able to help you decide on a present for this year, but it certainly was interesting to see what the future may hold for us.